British meat industry calls for an "orientation phase" after Brexit transition period ends

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) is calling for an "orientation phase" from 1 January to account for the UK Government's lack of Brexit preparation.
calendar icon 17 December 2020
clock icon 4 minute read

The BMPA is calling on Government to negotiate an "orientation phase" starting from 1 January that can be staggered over the coming twelve months. This will give them time to fill in all the missing detail on how trade with the EU will work, and gradually introduce the changes. It would avoid a damaging shock to our food supply chain and, importantly, preserve the UK's existing trade with Europe.

There is mounting anxiety in the meat sector over the wall of red tape and extra costs that exporters will now inevitably run into on 31 December.

This is so serious that many firms who have been happily supplying customers in Europe for years will simply lose that business. Not a great start for the new "global Britain".

Even if Government agree some sort of "deal", there is now no time left to negotiate the kind of full and detailed free trade agreement that would resolve all the issues that are set to hamper trade after 1 January.

Red tape

The first unresolved issue is the sheer volume of extra red tape and paperwork that will suddenly be needed when sending products of animal origin to Europe, our biggest overseas market by a large margin. The vast majority of this trade (75-80 percent) involves small, grouped consignments of different goods that originate from a variety of meat plants. These small consignments are usually bound for several different delivery points in Europe.

The problem is that, after 31 December, each and every individual consignment will now need a separate Export Health Certificate (EHC) signed by a vet. To compound the problem, the more pick-up and drop-off points that are involved in the supply chain, the more EHCs are needed.

But all this will be moot if the issue of "Groupage" is not resolved. This allows exporters to group together lots of small deliveries into one big one. As it stands there is no procedure for certifying a grouped consignment of fresh and frozen meat that isn’t packed for retail (which is the bulk of our exports). Without this virtually all shipments to (and also from) the EU will have to cease.

Not enough vets

This brings us to the second barrier to trade: we simply don’t have enough vets who will be in the right place at the right time to inspect the loads, verify traceability paperwork and sign the Export Health Certificates. Government insists that they have calculated that enough vets will be available but can’t give us any proof and are refusing to engage with industry to stress test the numbers.

Here’s the problem: Defra have estimated that an additional 300,000 Export Health Certificates will be needed per year. But even a cursory look at the kinds of volumes that just a handful of BMPA members are expecting, and the numbers start to look alarming. That 300k total could be surpassed easily by just four companies in beef and lamb consignments alone.

When you add all the other manufacturers of products of animal origin including dairy, the number of extra Export Health Certificates that will be needed will run into the millions per year. At 20-40 minutes per certificate, our current supply of available vets will be completely swamped.

An un-tested certification system

The third issue we have is the system for issuing export certificates itself. Government has been promoting its new Export Health Certificate online application portal, but this new online system has not been stress tested to see if it will cope with the huge flood of extra applications that will hit on 1 January. BMPA members are already reporting that applications are taking longer to process and this is without the uplift in demand that is coming down the track.

What needs to happen

We now know a full and detailed free trade agreement that would resolve all the above issues is impossible before 31 December. So, the Government needs to show us their contingency plan for when things don’t work as planned. They’ve alluded to having one but so far haven’t shown us anything.

Better still, as part of the final negotiations with the EU, the Government should build in an "orientation phase" to allow time to iron out the technical issues described above and then introduce changes in stages throughout 2021 to avoid a damaging shock to our imports and exports on 1 January.

The BPMA is trying to help Defra understand the unintended consequences we will face if this is not resolved and to offer practical solutions, but at the moment it is not clear if they are listening.

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